Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Goa

05/07/2012

Goa is one of those anomalous places. A tiny enclave carved out of western coast of India, it still displays the strong dose of Portuguese Catholic influence stamped on it by its colonisers, who only left in 1961.



Goa is a small part of the lush Konkan coast that runs along the western coast of India south of Bombay. The coastal plain of this region is backed by the forested mountains of the Western Ghats. These trap rainclouds coming off the Arabian Sea to create a steamy, lush landscape of coconut palms and paddy fields in the coastal plain and moist tropical forests of the hills beyond.



Before the authorities clamped down, Goa was famous in the nineties for gatherings of thousands of disreputable western youth, dancing to the monotonous beats and squiggly acid sounds of Goa trance, Goa’s unique gift to the world of electronic music. Apparently when djs first started playing dance music from records here, the vinyl would warp in the humidity, and so music was played off digitapes instead. This constraint of playing premixed tapes, rather than vinyl discs mixed on the spot, gave rise to Goa trance’s insistent, unvarying rhythmic signature.

Goa’s history as fleshpot of music and liberated youth goes back further than this of course. It was the final destination for many on the 1970s overland hippie trail, who tuned into pychedelic vibes on the beaches under the curious gaze of Goans and Indians, who used to turn up in coaches to goggle at the strange white people.

Taking drugs while lying around naked on a beach, surrounded by a highly conservative traditional rural society might seem culturally insensitive to some, but it isn’t the first time that foreigners have arrived in Goa to foist their ways on the locals. Perhaps the Spanish Inquisition, commemorated in the eerie-looking effigies of monks and bishops which fill the churches of Old Goa, and the hippies and freaks of the 1960s and since, have more in common than they think.

The altarpiece in Sé Cathedral of Santa Catarina, Goa Velha (Old Goa)



I spent the weekend with a friend of a friend who lives in Baga, one of the northern coastal villages that these days is most frequented by package tourists. Based in Goa, Jessie runs Video Volunteers, a charity that trains and equips people in the villages and slums of India to create and produce their own films that deal with the issues that they face in their everyday lives. The critical difference between this and other worthy-type aid work is that the people in the communities where VV works are in control of the media. Films are screened to large audiences of local people, galvanising action on issues like access to clean water and waste collection, often embarrassing relcalcitrant authorities into action.



I’d come from the largely alcohol-free, vegetarian heart of India. So I was unreasonably excited about sampling the illicit pleasures of alcohol and meat. Thanks to the sinful Portuguese legacy, these are present in abundance here. On Friday we had dinner at Le Poisson Rouge, a rather lovely restaurant close to the river in Baga serving ‘Indo-French’ cuisine, set in a garden of bamboo and tropical plants. The food is essentially French-European with an Indian accent – like chocolate brownies for pudding spiked with cardamon. Truly wonderful, after two months of dal and roti, especially with a decent bottle of red.

The next day we drove down to the far south of Goa, to what our host described as ‘one of the classiest places in Goa’ (an easier accolade than you might think). Agonda beach is a good two or three hours south of the northern tourist centres, reached down a narrow and bumpy road off the highway, through thickly forested hills. Except for the odd glimpse of an iron ore mine off the highway, this part of Goa is little affected by large scale development. Mining is big business here. Day and night, a continuous stream of cargo ships issue out of the mouth of the Mandovi river, carrying iron ore from Goa’s hills to feed China’s growing industrial appetite. Mining companies are extremely powerful in Goa, with close links with the political elite that enable them to operate with minimal social and environmental restrictions.

Monsoon guest house, Agonda



This is what Goa should be like, I thought as we arrived. Heaven on sea.



There isn’t a great deal to do in Agonda. You can get up in the morning and walk to the end of the beach, where there’s a freshwater pool. You can sit and read a trashy novel in the shade. You can swim in the warm Arabian Sea from the gently shelving sandy beach. An itinerant herd of cows shuffles up and down the beach, wearing the same placid expression as if they were holding up traffic in the centre of a city. As a temporary respite from India, it’s wonderful. There are some hermetically sealed five star resorts along the coast in Goa, where you could spend the same on two nights as you might for three weeks here. But places like this are much more agreeable – clean and comfortable, but pretty lofi. The guest houses in Agonda are a grown-up version of backpacking. At about £14 a night, it’s neither bedbug-cheap nor business-class plush. There’s no air conditioning, the shower dribbles precious fresh water and a crow might steal your breakfast if you leave it unattended long enough. But with a beach as lovely and empty as this, you really don’t need much else.

Local cows chilling on Agonda beach



I left Agonda with a real pang that I couldn’t stay longer.

The postscript to this interlude of loveliness was an afternoon in Anjuna. I walked up over the scrub-covered rocky headland that separates the northern beaches of Anjuna and Vagator from Baga, where I was stayin. From the top of the hill, fun-seekers launched themselves onto the thermals on paragliders, soaring above the blue of the sea, the chain of sandy beaches and continuous canopy of coconut palms which ran up to the base of more scrubby hills further inland



Closer to, the view of Anjuna is less idyllic. Two weeks before Christmas, there was scarcely more than a handful of tourists. Perhaps in a valiant attempt to attract the meagre custom, commercial dance music was pounding out over empty sunloungers from several of the wall-to-wall ramshackle bars that line the high ground above the beach. Since I’d last come here fourteen years ago as a freshfaced eighteen year-old the crowd had changed (unsurpisingly, I guess).

The florescent lycra-clad global youth of the 1990s had been replaced by middle aged German men in G-strings playing pingpong. Interestingly, there were several Indian tourists as well – largely groups of young urbanites rather than families. The hawkers of jewellery, clothes and coconuts were all still there – still selling the same psychedelic tie-dye sarongs and pseudo-hippy tat. Back from the beach, Europeans here for the winter season were sitting in a collective topor on the verandahs of rented houses. Despite more than thirty years of being the heart of the ‘Goa scene’, Anjuna remains a sleepy village set in a forest of coconut trees, albeit one whose economy is heavily tilted towards the presence of the hundreds of Westerners who spend several months here every winter.

The Russians have arrived. There goes the neighbourhood.



Initially I was a bit aghast. Had I once thought that this was the height of cool? Has the place gone downmarket or have I grown up, I wondered? I was shown some shawls and jewellery that I didn’t want to buy. I walked up to where the beach ended in some sharp rocks, littered with plastic debris from the bars and restaurants lining the beach.

Towards sunset I found myself at the Shore Bar, which sits on the seawall at the edge of the beach, perfectly positioned to view the sun setting over the ocean. The last time I’d been in the Shore Bar, large numbers of people gathered inside the bar and spilled out onto the beach, to dance or watch the sunset to the accompaniment of pounding techno. Now a handful of people sat around picking at salads or idly browsing magazines as generic chillout music burbled in the background.

As the evening wore on the clientele of the bar changed from tourists on holiday, to the long-stay foreigners who rent houses for the winter here. I talked with a Nigerian man in India on undefined ‘business’, and a thirtysomething mother from London called Kelly, who’d just enrolled her daughter in a school in Goa for the next few months. We talked about India, about London, about her daughter. All of a sudden I was seeing another side of Anjuna. Westerners have been coming here for so long that it’s no longer just a centre for youthful hedonism. Several generations are now represented here, from the sun-wizened old hippies speeding around on scooters, to a new generation of kids growing up and attending school here (not the local schools usually, but those set up by other expats).

After dark, the conveyor belt of cargo ships out to sea was still evident, a wall of lights extending to the horizon. The atmosphere in the Shore Bar was agreeably relaxed. The sea lapped a few feet from the laterite wall on which the bar sat, the stars were visible above, herbal tea and juices were being drunk, joints rolled. The louche appeal of a place like this is easy to understand. Yet I couldn’t help finding something vaguely disquieting about the line of ships in the distance.

People from Europe and other places come to spend the winter here for the cheap living, the relaxed pace of life, the bohemian atmosphere. Who can blame them? We sat around watching the waves lapping the beach, while a line of ships loaded with raw resources stretched to the horizon, fuelling the full throttle industrial civilisation that we’d presumably come here to escape. It brought to mind ‘Plastic Beach’, the Gorillaz album vaguely themed around a beach paradise whose inhabitants pursue hedonism even while the signs of its degeneration are all around them. ‘I know it seems like the world is hopeless / It’s like wonderland.’

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